A picture paints a thousand words. Since a movie is a story told in pictures, a screenplay is the blueprint from which the director takes his cues. It is not the screenwriter’s job to provide camera shots, in fact that is usually the sign of a novice, but it is our job to provide compelling description that conveys meaning, elicits emotion, and ignites the imagination.
Think about your favorite films. It’s likely that what you remember are a series of images; Michael Corleone walking out of the restroom and shooting the men at the table in The Godfather. The final image in Annie Hall of cars driving down the street as seen from inside the empty restaurant where Woody Allen has just run into Annie for the last time. Shirley MacLaine standing on the elevator in The Apartment. Leonardo DeCaprio and Kate Winslet standing on the bow of the Titanic. The tracking shot in Goodfellas where the gangsters enter the Copacabana nightclub through the kitchen, or the one where the gangsters talk in the car while the restaurant they just set fire to burns behind them. The final shot of Thelma and Louise driving over the cliff. The final shot of the boy running in The 400 Blows. Ron Burgundy doing his vocal warm-up during the opening credits of Anchorman. Clarice Starling’s terrifying walk toward Hannibal Lecter’s cell as she meets him for the first time in The Silence of the Lambs.
These images provide subtext. When Leo and Kate stand on the bow of the ship with their arms in the air, we understand that they have fallen in love. When Pacino shoots the men, we understand that he has said goodbye to his old life and is now a gangster like the rest of his family. When Woody exits the frame and we are left staring at the passing cars, there is a feeling of exquisite sadness at the fleetingness of love.
There is a rule in documentary filmmaking that says never tell the audience what they are seeing. If, for example, Hitler is addressing a Nazi rally, the narrator might tell us about Hitler’s love of dogs. The point is that we are seeking juxtaposition in order to explore meaning. This principle is useful in narrative screenwriting as well. Our description can crosscut the dialogue in order to convey all sorts of meaning. Think of Kristin Wiig in Bridesmaids being told by her best friend that she has just gotten engaged. Her dialogue suggests that she is thrilled for her friend while her hand quivers as she puts the glass of wine to her mouth.
Also, what happens off screen is sometimes more arresting than what is displayed onscreen. Sometimes the image is better left to the imagination. What is not shown is as important as what is.